Do Cheap and Easy Letter Grades Tell the Whole Accountability Story?

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For the past several years, North Carolina’s legislature has been working to reimagine almost everything about education in our state.  Their most recent move:  Releasing A-F letter grades for every school in every county in our state.  “North Carolina public school parents now have an easy-to-understand letter grade to help them evaluate school performance,” argued Bill Cobey, the Chairman of the State Board of Education.

The only factor considered in assigning a letter grade to each school are results from our most recent round of standardized testing.  To make matters worse, only twenty percent of a building’s grade is based on year-after-year growth rates that students show on our state’s exams.  Eighty percent is based on nothing more than passing rates.  The results have been sadly predictable:  Schools in struggling communities are almost universally failing under the new system while schools in wealthier communities are racking up high marks.

What troubles me the most is the suggestion that student scores on end of grade tests are a reliable way to identify successful schools.

While A-F letter grades drawn from multiple choice exams may be easy to generate and easy to understand, it is ridiculous to suggest that scores drawn from the current iteration of knowledge-driven standardized tests are an indicator of anything other than kids who can remember REALLY well.

Need proof?  Then consider the fact that my sixth grade students NAILED last year’s end of grade exam in science — a result that I should be ready to celebrate given the fact that our state’s legislators recently made student performance on standardized tests a significant factor in teacher evaluation and compensation decisions here in North Carolina.  According to their metrics, I am an instructional all-star.

But nailing the end of grade exam means almost nothing, y’all.

It means that my students knew a TON of trivial details — and that I spent an inordinate amount of time cramming those trivial details into their minds instead of doing anything close to actual science in my classroom.  My kids could tell you that light bends and slows when it enters a dense medium, that scientists use earthquake waves to learn more about the interior of the earth, and that the key ingredient in healthy soil is humus — but ask them to design an experiment, to share their results in a convincing way, or to collaborate around an investigation and they’d probably be stumped.

And that’s the beef that I have with communities who are committed to finding easy ways to evaluate school performance.

The uncomfortable truth is that adopting easy to understand metrics almost always results in adopting metrics that measure outcomes that are becoming increasingly irrelevant in a world where knowing is cheap and easy.  Employers in the innovation economy aren’t clamoring for kids with killer memories.  They are clamoring for kids who are creative thinkers and good partners and innovators and dreamers and doers.

So what does that mean for people who care deeply about the success of both our students and our schools?

It means that it’s high time that we start clamoring for something more than cheap and easy measures of school performance.  The simple truth is that high-stakes accountability models that reward the delivery and mastery of low-level skills fail everyone — not just kids who live in poverty.


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